Super Bowl LI – that’s 51 for the non-pretentious – is three days away, and once again, the numbers are staggering: Tickets going for more than three times the face value of $1,825. Thirty-second commercial spots selling for $5 million. An estimated $500 million in revenue generated for the host city of Houston. Another $4.7 billion – you read that right – expected to be gambled on the game and its numerous propositions.
But the most staggering number of all is this: Members of the winning team will each earn $107,000. Each of the losers will take home $53,000.
That may seem like a lot of money to most of us, but put it in perspective. The main reason, in fact, the only reason, most of us will be watching the game will be to see the players in action. Not to hear some guy I never heard of sing the National Anthem or to watch Lady Gaga lip-sync during the halftime show or sit through a procession of inane commercials produced by ad execs trying way too hard to be clever.
With a nod to Herm Edwards, we will be watching to see the players play the game. We want to see if Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons can upend Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. The players are the story here. And those players will be paid exactly 1.34% of the total revenue generated by the game they are playing.
Or, to put it another way, that $107,000 winner’s share would not even be enough to purchase ONE SECOND of commercial time during the broadcast, because simple arithmetic will tell you that $5 million for a 30-second spot works out to $167,000 per second of precious airtime.
Even in decline, the popularity of the NFL is not in question, nor is the Super Bowl’s ratings dominance over Major League Baseball’s World Series. And yet, each member of the 2016 World Champion Chicago Cubs pulled down $369,000, more than three times what the winners of the Super Bowl will earn. In other words, the winner’s shares for Tom Brady, Martellus Bennett and Julian Edelman – assuming the Patriots win — combined will not equal that of Kris Bryant.
Instead, most of the estimated $630 million generated by the game will wind up in the pockets of the league, the owners and the TV network broadcasting the game.
This is not only inequitable, but borderline criminal. At the same time, it is very much in keeping with the hypocrisy of the NFL, a league whose commissioner came down on harder on a quarterback who may or may not have let some air out of a football than he initially did on a guy who indisputably cold-cocked his wife in an elevator.
But then again, the NFL markets its players as “gladiators,’’ and what was the payoff for a winning gladiator in ancient Rome? The chance to live and breathe for another day. So by that standard, NFL players have got it easy.
The truth is, however, that no league treats its players more shabbily than the NFL does. Even though the average NFL career is a scant 3-1/2 years, the average NFL player suffers more than 2.5 injuries per season and an inordinate number of ex-NFLers suffer from CTE, concussion-induced dementia, and crippled knees and hips, it took the crusading of the New York Times and other news outlets to force the league to take action.
And the NFL Players Association is not much of a help; somehow, that union, now headed by DeMaurice Smith, continues to tolerate inadequate medical and retirement coverage, non-guaranteed contracts and a disproportionate share of the wealth going to the 32 billionaires who own the teams. In the last CBA, the players’ share of the league’s revenues actually decreased, from 48 to 47%, and still Smith called it “a great deal for the players.’’
This is due, in part, to the fact that outside of a handful of the league’s 1,700 players – guys like Brady and Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan and Eli Manning and Odell Beckham Jr. – the vast majority of NFL players are faceless, virtually interchangeable parts who can easily be replaced without much notice by any but the most obsessed fantasy football geeks.
That is why, in an interview on HBO last summer, Smith acknowledged that “in most labor-management paradigms, workers get benefits when they are willing to go on strike.’’ What was left unsaid is that NFL players, unlike their baseball counterparts, are not willing to take that chance.
Smith also pointed out that NFL fans basically don’t care about the conditions their “heroes’’ work under. “Are fans going to not watch because the players don’t have guaranteed contracts?,’’ he asked. “Of course they’re still going to watch.’’
He added that to most fans, players are in fact overpaid, and we’ve all heard some barstool blowhard boast of how he’d be glad “to do it for nothing.’’
That’s all baloney, of course, and the truth is that just about everyone connected with Sunday’s game is feeding quite nicely off the NFL trough, with the exception of the one group of people who make the game worth watching.
That is an injustice that is not easily rectified, and something that renders Super Bowl Sunday a bit less than super.